Almodóvar’s fear and loathing of Gaga

After making several unintentionally horrible films—Broken Embraces, Volver, Bad Education—Pedro Almodóvar has finally made an actual horror film. The Skin I Live In offers the weird, unnerving and repellent story of Spanish plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), who experiments with making inflammable skin grafts, a mad scientist’s response to his wife’s death in a fiery car crash. Ledgard imprisons his human guinea pig, Vera (Elena Anaya), in his Toledo mansion—a fortress/museum—attended to by mother/housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes).

Almodóvar intentionally compounds this horror plot with Freudian, gothic, absurd and surreal affectations. The Skin I Live In is the most self-conscious, intellectually ambitious film yet from a director who has previously used self-consciousness in the form of camp irony—the source of his merry and moving 1980s movies. In Matador, Law of Desire and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Spain’s repressed counterculture joined the decade’s androgynous multicultural pop. Impudent and inspired, those films felt like underground masterpieces. Almodóvar leapt beyond LGBT flamboyance to a kind of world-class feminist humanism—the tradition of Cocteau but with Latin bloodiness and a brazen pop streak that last surfaced successfully in 1997’s Live Flesh.

Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya in The Skin I Live In.  Photo courtesy of Sony Classics

Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya in The Skin I Live In. Photo courtesy of Sony Classics

Since then, international success and acclaim have allowed bad boy Pedro to hone his rough, subversive filmmaking toward mainstream classicism. This superficial advance led to missteps as Almodóvar stumbled into the self-pitying kinky masochism of Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, Kika, All About My Mother, Bad Education and Talk to Her, which suited the fragmented, emotionally isolated mood of the century’s end. These films resembled doctrinaire queer cinema (as by Almodóvar’s lessers) rather than his instinctive, multicultural, ambisexual celebrations. The Skin I Live In charts Almodóvar’s long road back to his original compassionate impulses.

Skin’s plot convolutions (flashing back and jumping forward to show how Ledgard, his mother and Vera came together) result in Almodóvar’s least humorous movie. It sheds, then layers its own narrative as Almodóvar simultaneously works through his enormous career ambitions and the psychological conflicts always at the root of his taboo-snubbing cinema.

No longer simply laughing at social conventions, Almodóvar risks offense in Skin even while appealing for sympathy. Ledgard’s madness interweaves with his mother’s; Vera’s reflects the tragedy of actual and psychic victimization. Some cumulative statement on sin, desire and social acceptance is under construction.

“Our face identifies us,” Ledgard says at the film’s opening, but Almodóvar seeks identity beneath the skin and past the body’s often misleading allure. Surface identity is teased by the large paintings that decorate Ledgard’s home, a gallery of art declarations that also announce Almodóvar’s bid for status. Skin is a compendium of art references, from Louise Bourgeois’ experimental The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine to Alice Munro; Franju’s Eyes Without a Face to Mario Bava; David Cronenberg to Hitchcock—even William Wyler’s The Collector. Almodóvar creates his own l’amour fou cosmos through the cinema of obsession. His free-association references unlock a film geek’s id but also deliberately—recklessly—indulge the nightmarish aspects of personality.

The mad elegance of Skin’s flashbacks (cinema’s equivalent to painting’s pentimento) show Almodóvar grappling with the torment of gender—its confused politics and morality. This is no Lady Gaga stunt; it is, in the end, a soulful threnody on the mess of sexual politics that Gaga merely exploits. Skin goes to extremes, yet Almodóvar holds on to the emotional needs that our society cannot fully escape. Cutting from a terrified scream to a mother coincidentally searching for her lost child masterfully connects experiences in the universal condition. José Luis Alcaine’s photography achieves psychic clarity and Alberto Iglesias’ score rouses sensitivity. Altogether it’s pure human intuition that Almodóvar’s recent showing off has lacked.

I’ve avoided plot details because Skin would not synopsize well. But it’s full of feeling—a genuine art experience, even when Almodóvar fights his own conceits. Villainy and martyrdom overlap, as do dream and terror. That’s why the film embraces Buñuel’s acerbity yet neglects his humor, evokes the narrative flow of De Palma’s Femme Fatale then shrinks from the omniscience that De Palma synthesized out of Hitchcock, Michael Powell and Warhol.

The title The Skin I Live In has to do with Almodóvar coming to terms with sexual awareness in a world he, alas, did not create. Vera’s desperate graffito, “Art is substitute for health,” admits Almodóvar’s own struggle for acceptance. By finally admitting his fear of nature and human cruelty, Almodóvar speaks to the avant-garde’s pretense that we can brazen our way to satisfaction. The Skin I Live In leaves our progressive social assumptions disturbed.